Bùi Xuân Phái’s Artistic Career

Bui Xuan Phai - Hang Bac

Bùi Xuân Phái was born in 1920 and died in 1988 in Hà Nội. He graduated from the Painting Section of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine (1941-1945 class), joined the Resistance, took part in many group exhibitions in the free zone. In 1952, he came back to Hà Nội and lived and worked at Nº87 Thuốc Bắc street until his death.
From 1956 to 1957, Bùi Xuân Phái taught at the Hà Nội Fine Arts College. As a sequel to the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm (Humanism – Belles Lettres) movement, he was sent to reeducation labor at a joinery workshop in Nam Định; at the same time, the direction of the Fine Arts College suggested that he should submit his resignation.
Bùi Xuân Phái formed part of the last generation of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, contemporary with Nguyễn Sáng, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Dương Bích Liên, those great painters who together with himself had a profound influence on the evolution of Vietnamese modern art. He specialised mainly in oil painting and his favorite subject-matter was Hà Nội old streets. As early as in his lifetime, his works on this theme were affectionately styled Phố Phái (Phái’s streets) by the art-loving people. Bùi Xuân Phái’s streetscapes are at the same time antique and realistic, superbly expressing the soul of Hà Nội streets in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s. In his paintings, the outlines are deeply marked, the street thus not only becoming itself, but also getting closer to everybody, both the painted surface and the surroundings show an inner depth. Watching Phái’s streetscapes, the viewer can sensethat the artist conveys his nostalgic memories filled with vague regrets and indefinite melancholy in every brushstroke, like an omen of the imminent disappearance of every of these roofs and people that embody the soul of the past. Besides old streets, he was also very successful in other subjects such as chèo, portraits, rural landscapes, nudes, still lifes… Many of his works won prizes at national and Hà Nội exhibitions. He painted on canvas, paper, cardboard, wooden plates, even on newsprint when he ran short of materials. He used various media: oil, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, crayon… His works profoundly reflect the Vietnamese people’s soul, humanist character and love of freedom, combining humor with compassion for unhappy fates. He made an immense contribution in the domain of illustration for newspaper and book cover design and in 1982, won an international (Leipzig) prize for his design of the book Hề chèo (Chèo jestlers)
As a result of his joining the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm movement, , from 1957 on, his activity suffered severe restrictions. To make both ends meet, he had to take orders for illustrations and comics for newspapers, using any pen-names that came to mind: PiHa, ViVu, Ly… Not until 1984 did he have his first and unique solo exhibition, which was highly appreciated by both the public and his colleagues. With 24 paintings sold right at the opening, this was the most successful one-man show so far in Việt Nam. And it was also the first time the central television devoted a whole programme to highlight Bùi Xuân Phái’s life and work.
Despite hard living conditions, with his love for art, his thirst for beauty, Bùi Xuân Phái always managed to overcome the hassles of everyday life to create soulful works vibrant with simple, unsophisticated beauty and emotional depths. Wrote art critic Thái Bá Vân: “Bùi Xuân Phái’s intepid and tight-lipped journey with his brush and palette is magnificent and full of significance for Hà Nội and for us eternally. Rather than being historic evidence, it constitutes the humanistic proof of an artistic consciouusness ”
In 1996, he was posthumously awarded with a Hồ Chí Minh prize.

Principal works
Hà Nội Old Streets – Oil 1972
Hà Nội in Resistance – Oil 1966
An Ox Cart in Old Street – Oil 1972
Deserted Street – Oil 1981
Make-up Before a Chèo Representation – Oil 1968
A Chèo Representation – Oil 1968
A Chèo Couple – Oil 1967
Before Curtain Time – Oil 1987

Prizes and Awards:
Hồ Chí Minh Prize in Literature and Arts, 1996
Prizes at the 1946 and 1980 National Art Exhibitions
Prize at the International Graphic Exhibition in Leipzig (Germany)
Prizes at the 1969, 1981, 1983 and 1984 Capital City Art Exhibitions
Medal “For the Cause of Vietnamese Art”, 1997.

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